assuring sustainable third places in the city

Last week, while the Seattle City Council gave final approval to more street food vendors in public places, Borders Group Inc. began its liquidation of most remaining Borders bookstores, including locations in destination American downtowns.

This is related news, because both items are about how public and private uses and spaces mix in urbanized areas. Both raise questions of “no net loss” of urban, and downtown “third places” and how to make a more livable city.

In my view, despite the today’s international focus on urban street food vending, the paradigm left behind by Borders leaves bigger questions for back-to-the city devotees.

Some definitions are in order. “Third place” is a decades-old term championed by sociologist Ray Oldenburg for venues which bring people together in the tradition of the American colonial tavern or general store. The idea remains central to urbanist thinking, and describes those places, other than home or work, where we gather, debate and trade. “No net loss” is a term borrowed from the vocabulary of wetland conservation, and allows for replacement of lost assets with equivalent resources.

“No net loss” is the essence of sustainability.

In the last decade, as forms of home and work evolved, conceptions of third places changed as well—from larger footprint commercial spaces such as Borders, to mid-size bookstores (e.g. Third Place Books), to back-to-the-commons public spaces and the pop-up agora. Street food vending is somewhere in the mix as an expanded place of ambience and employment—and to all but certain bricks and mortar restauranteurs—a likely urban benefit.

In response to the Borders news, some pundits, like Josh Stephens in Planetizen, have called for a better, non-Walmartian reinvention of the bookstore. In his view, big boxes—even when urban— destroy Mom and Pop purveyors. Amazon and Kindle aside, he makes a good case for a new, post-recessionary wave of independent urban bookstore startups. For those bookstores, I hope that he is right.

But as to third places—and I am going to assume that “big books” uses can play such a role—there is something bothersome about the final demise of Borders’ urban core locations. While perhaps an opportunity for the independent competitor, what of the potential loss of third place uses in high-value urban downtowns?

Will the prime square footage occupied by Borders have similar, third place potential once reclaimed? Will replacement uses provide the equivalent, fusion business purposes of books, coffee, lecture and song?

Last week, CNN Money was also abuzz with the the re-realized location efficiencies of heading back downtown. In that spirit, let’s hope that downtowns retain dedicated uses of value to those soon to arrive.

Both the private market and public policymakers should work together on the potential prize of livability: assuring the sustainable, no net loss of square footage devoted to urban third places.

All images composed by the author.

23 thoughts on “assuring sustainable third places in the city

  1. Bill Bradburd

    It is arguable that Borders never really was a third place, and instead just a fad place to shop (and perhaps buy that high priced Charbucks latte).

    But as a category-killer retail establishment it really had no soul, and when the economy slowed, the shoppers dried up. Because they really weren’t there because it was a third place – they were there because Borders had cheaper prices than the independent book or record store (ones that they likely helped put out of business thereby killing off another component of our local economy).

    I don’t lament the loss of Borders no more than I would a Bed, Bath and Beyond.

    Only in a community where consumerism is king could a retail outlet be a third place. And I would argue that such a community is not really sustainable.

    Let’s ensure that open spaces, pocket parks, community centers, churches, and, yes, pubs and coffee shops, remain the measure of healthy urban third places.

  2. Hi Bill. You took the bait 🙂 I wonder though. Was Borders (and B&N) for that matter not a third place because of the fad chain identity? I see so many such places functioning as third places, and my point is we need to be careful in celebrating that some did not have the uniqueness or economic wherewithal to survive. While the Bed, Bath and Beyond analogy holds at some levels, I am not sure it does at others….

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